WASHINGTON ― How did a fairly obscure freshman Republican senator from Louisiana suddenly become one of the most quotable people in Washington?
For John Neely Kennedy, it was easier than pulling a greased string through a goose. Or perhaps it was easier than shucking corn in a henhouse. Or maybe it was just easier than drinking weed killer.
Since being elected to the Senate a year ago, Kennedy, previously the longtime state treasurer of Louisiana, has made a name for himself on Capitol Hill with his wit, humor and penchant for folksy expressions ― a notable feat in a place where jargon and arcane procedure tend to reign supreme.
At a time when many of his colleagues are using modern forms of media to communicate with their constituents ― e.g., Twitter ― Kennedy has managed to command viral headlines with little more than Southern wisdom and a Pelican State drawl, distilling events of the day into blunt terms regular people can understand.
“Our country was founded by geniuses, but it’s being run by idiots,” Kennedy said dismissively last week, as a government shutdown loomed. “I think most Americans are wondering how some folks up here made it through the birth canal.”
A former member of the Democratic Party, the Oxford-educated Kennedy ― no relation to those other Kennedys you may have heard about ― worked as a trial lawyer and later served as legal counsel in the 1980s to then-Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer (D). He switched parties in 2008 in order to mount a challenge to then-Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat. But he didn’t win office until scandal-plagued former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) decided not to run for re-election in 2016.
Kennedy has acquired a bit of a reputation as an easy mark on Capitol Hill ― at least among the press. He loves talking to reporters, and reporters love talking to him because he’s notoriously quotable. While other senators, like Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for example, usually shun the Capitol Hill press corps, Kennedy tends to post up in a hallway and dutifully answer question after question on just about any topic.
It’s a welcome trend in a legislative body that has grown more cautious and guarded in recent years.
“It’s like a circus without a tent,” Kennedy said of the Senate this week.
Kennedy’s greatest hits ― like the “weed killer” line ― came during last year’s debates regarding health care and tax cuts. But he’s provided some of his most memorable one-liners in recent weeks as well.
When nearly all of Washington seemed to erupt over President Donald Trump reportedly referring to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” earlier this month, Kennedy likened the ensuing nastiness to “The Jerry Springer Show” and even quipped that the drama between his colleagues may be hampering Earth’s chances of contact with extraterrestrial life.
“That’s why the aliens won’t talk to us,” Kennedy told reporters, referring to the bipartisan blame game over the president’s comments. “They look at us and say, ‘These people... they’re 13-year-olds.’”
He later described a recent meeting at the White House with Trump as “very positive,” adding that “no one called anybody an ignorant slut or anything.” The line was a reference a “Saturday Night Live” catchphrase from the 1970s.
Lawmakers often berate the nation’s capital in broad strokes as a way to curry favor with folks back home. But Kennedy ― who ran for Senate twice before finally succeeding in 2016 ― upped the ante when he used some choice language to describe the city last year amid negotiations over the GOP tax plan.
“This is Washington, D.C.,” Kennedy said in December. “Politics is in everybody’s blood, kind of like herpes.”
Kennedy has directed witticisms at his fellow Republicans, as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), for example, is “tougher than a $3 steak,” according to Kennedy, while Sen. John McCain, who is still recovering from cancer surgery in Arizona, is “tough as a boiled owl.”
GOP senators said this week that Kennedy is proving to be one of their most effective messengers ― a surprising turn of events, given how little time he has spent in Washington.
“Well, when he’s awake, he’s awesome,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) quipped this week. “He has a good way of using humor to make a point. One of the most effective things you can do in politics ― [Ronald] Reagan was really good at this ― is you use humor at the right time.”
“In a place not known for being witty, he’s witty,” added Graham, who has a similar reputation and ought to know. “But in the Senate, to be witty the bar is low.”
Kennedy isn’t all hat and no cattle, though. Despite his lack of seniority, which determines one’s place in the Senate pecking order, the senator has had several standout performances at committee hearings.
In October, Kennedy drew plaudits from both parties when he said the IRS contracting the hacked company Equifax to combat fraud was like giving actress Lindsay Lohan ― who’s had her troubles ― “the keys to the minibar.”
And his incisive questioning during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing ― Kennedy spent years working as a corporate and civil trial attorney ― humiliated a Trump district judge nominee in a clip that went viral last month.
“Just because you’ve seen [the movie] ‘My Cousin Vinny’ doesn’t qualify you to be a federal judge,” Kennedy said to nominee Matthew Petersen, who admitted during the hearing that he had never tried a case or argued a motion in court.
While he is a strong Trump supporter, Kennedy has been one of the few Republicans critical of his judicial nominees, saying at one point that the president is getting some “very, very bad advice” on judicial nominations.
“It’s not just talk,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said of Kennedy. “There is substance to what he suggests. There aren’t a lot of people that can do that.”
While he is one of the most conservative members of the Senate ― especially on gun control, social issues and the environment ― Kennedy has been known to vote against expectations. He was one of just two Republicans to oppose a bill last year that nullified an Obama-era regulation allowing consumers to band together and sue banks or credit card companies.
Earlier this month, Kennedy nearly joined Democrats in blocking a hotly contested surveillance bill that extended powerful spying tools authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. After nearly 30 minutes of drama and debate with his GOP colleagues, Kennedy relented and voted to reauthorize the law, in part, he later said, because the Senate has a hard enough time governing without him rocking the boat.
For now, it seems Kennedy is becoming more accustomed to the daily whiplash of Washington, and that he’s dealing with it on his own terms.
“I had a friend who always used to say, ‘Here is my advice: Be yourself unless you suck,’” he said in a recent Fox News interview. “So, I’m myself.”